By David Butler

Q What ever happened to video telephones? I recall predictions that they would be commonplace by now. Could a multimedia PC be used as a video phone?

A Video telephones have been ``just around the corner'' since the Picturephone won acclaim at the New York World's Fair way back in 1964. Although they're still not commonplace, the first model debuted more than seven years ago. At the push of a button, the user could transmit a still self-portrait to a black and white screen on the receiving telephone.

Today's models display a motion video on a three-inch color screen. One company announced plans to introduce a six-incher next summer. It will feature an auxiliary camera input and a slot for options such as ``v-mail'' and electronic telephone directories.

There's a tradeoff

Given the limitations of analog phone lines, there's a trade-off between motion (frame rate) and image detail (resolution).

The current generation of videophones transmits a slightly grainy picture at 10 frames per second -- adequate to keep the lips in sync with the voice. Slowing the frame rate would sharpen the image. However, motion would become noticeably jerky.

Although prices have begun to drop, videophones are still quite expensive at about $800. Leasing may be more prudent, especially considering the rapid pace of technological change.

Many telephone retail outlets have public videophones. It's a great way for grandparents to get their first look at the new baby!

Still-frame monitors

At least two companies have introduced still-frame video monitoring systems. This type of system is ideal for looking in on a vacation home or an elderly relative.

You can set it up to automatically transmit images at regular intervals or in response to a security sensor.

In business, eye contact and body language are key to effective communication. That's one reason why executives spend so much time and money traveling.

A videophone could easily pay for itself if it eliminated just one trip. On another front, the neighborhood video kiosk is changing the way banks and financial service companies interact with their customers. Customers can conduct business face-to-face without having to visit a branch office.

Business warming up

Business also is warming up to video conferencing. Individuals or small groups at distant locations can conduct a meeting over a high-speed network.

Ideally, all participants should be able to see one another.

An electronic ``whiteboard,'' along with collaborative computer programs, adds interactivity to the meeting. Companies often rely on turnkey specialists rather than purchasing their own equipment.

With the latest generation of microprocessors and high-speed modems, it's now possible to use a multimedia PC as a videophone. Although most systems require digital phone lines (ISDN), video modems are available that can squeeze an acceptable picture over a regular phone line. However, don't rule out ISDN digital lines too quickly. In some cities, digital lines they go for as little as $30 per month.

As telephone and cable companies extend high-speed networks to the home, you can expect to see videophones with high-quality images. Several companies are working on designs that will work in conjunction with a television.


To receive a list of companies that manufacture videophones and PC-based video modems, please send $1.50 and a self-addressed envelope to David Butler F-446, Department MN, 14713 Pleasant Hill Road, Charlotte, N.C. 28278-7927. The list includes toll-free phone numbers and a summary of each company's products. You'll also receive information on remote video monitoring systems.

David Butler writes about technology for home owners.

Published 3/18/95 in the San Jose Mercury News.

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